I am an incurable list maker, and I am an unreformed taxonomist. I love categories and sub-categories, so here is a list of my Top 10 (okay, 11) favorites roughly conforming to the following taxonomy:
Rock ‘n Roll
“New Wave” is a notoriously slippery label, vaguely encompassing the primal energy and DIY aesthetic of punk and the hook-laden ethos of pop. To its Mohawk-sporting detractors, it was simply diluted punk, the commercialized bastard stepchild of what was supposed to be menacing and anarchic and anything but commercial. These were the folks who didn’t know that The Sex Pistols started out as a marketing gimmick in a sex/bondage clothes shop. For me it was simply superb music. I don’t have a problem with melodies and hooks, nor do I have a problem with three-minute singles dominated by intelligent songwriting and the immortal combination of guitars, bass, and drums. And these are the folks, circa 1978 – 1982, who did that the best. It was a great musical era, and a great time to be from the U.K. There were good American New Wave bands as well, but this was a musical epoch, like 1964, when the best and most bracing music was imported to American shores.
In no particular order other than alphabetical:
Any Trouble – Where Are All The Nice Girls?
This was the greatest early Elvis Costello album never recorded by Elvis Costello. By this time (1980) Costello was veering off into the genre experiments that have characterized his music up to the present day. But Any Trouble, led by future Richard Thompson band member Clive Gregson, was clearly enamored of Costello in his Angry Young Man phase, and they made angry music about being uncool dweebs. Gregson, who looked the part, pulled it off not only because of his bookish librarian glasses, but also because he wrote superb little chiming guitar pop gems with titles like “Second Choice” and “When You Lose at Playing Bogart.” Bonus points for the genuinely rockin’ New Wave cover of Abba’s “The Name of the Game.” Uncool guys who can make Abba look cool are particularly praiseworthy.
Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain
You have to have a hit in order to be a one-hit wonder. So I’m not sure what to call Aztec Camera. But Roddy Frame, essentially a one-man band, wrote at least half a dozen songs on this album that deserved to be massive hits, and he achieved a surprisingly full sound with just overdubbed acoustic guitars and vocals. There are some absolutely timeless pop gems here like “Oblivious,” with its swooning backing vocals, and “The Bugle Sounds Again,” which swelled to a glorious crescendo like some Phil Spector Wall of Sound symphony. Roddy kept trying, but he never came close to this, his debut album. It’s a deliciously melodic, melancholic offering from a No Hit Wonder.
Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model
Well, you know, it’s a classic for a reason. As strong as Costello’s debut (My Aim Is True) was, This Year’s Model surpasses it in every way – in the wildly inventive wordplay, in the perfectly manic vocal delivery, and in the furious circus music dominated by Steve Nieve’s Farfisa organ. For me, this is still the definitive New Wave album, and it stands as the high water mark in a career full of very strong albums. Costello did vituperative scorn and musical one-finger salutes better than anyone since mid-‘60s Dylan, and his band The Attractions managed to capture the sound of a runaway roller coaster careening off the tracks. It was a 1978 model, but it sounds just as relevant and just as urgent today.
Dave Edmunds – Tracks on Wax 4
Nick Lowe – Labour of Lust
Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure
Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe were veteran pub rockers, compatriots of the Brinsley Schwarz guys who eventually formed the backbone of Graham Parker’s band The Rumour. Edmunds was at heart an unreconstructed rock classicist, as much in love with Chuck Berry and early ‘60s Girl Groups as he was with punk. His early solo albums are almost slavish imitations of Berry’s trademark guitar licks and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, but Tracks on Wax 4 finds the right balance between artistic homage and creative exploration, with Nick Lowe’s songs exploding with manic rock ‘n roll energy. It’s easy to play Spot the Influence – Chuck Berry here, The Everly Brothers there, the Wall of Sound everywhere – but Edmunds’ singing and guitar work and Nick Lowe’s songs were a great combination. The same combination shines on Lowe’s Labour of Lust, this time with bassist Nick stepping to the forefront. Edmunds’ solo on “American Squirm” is a model of economy and precision, while “Cruel To Be Kind” and “Switchboard Susan” remain the models for something, perhaps how to write lascivious songs while employing as many bad puns and double entendres as possible. Eventually these blokes stopped making solo albums and officially joined forces in the band Rockpile, where, you guessed it, Nick Lowe’s songs and Dave Edmunds’ guitar work were the high points. Between them, they made a good half dozen albums that verge on greatness, but these three are my favorites.
The English Beat – I Just Can’t Stop It
At the forefront of the multiracial groups (The Specials, Madness) who merged ska with punk attitude and pop sensibilities, The English Beat delivered a masterpiece of a debut album. Dave Wakeling wrote the great punk/pop songs, toastmaster Ranking Roger and Desmond Dekker alum Saxa added the authentic ska influences, and together they created impossibly propulsive music, whether they were covering Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), writing disquieting suicide anthems (“Click Click”), or protesting the indignities of Thatcher’s England (“Stand Down, Margaret”). You try to sit still, but your body wants to move, and you just can’t stop it.
Joe Jackson – Look Sharp
Before he turned into a piano lounge/ersatz jazz crooner and made millions, Joe Jackson was just an ordinary, not-so-good-looking bloke who had woman troubles and alternated between bouts of self pity and strident denunciations of all things feminine. That’s when he was at his best. Look Sharp, his debut album, features the ultimate study in sexual frustration, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and several more caustic bombs whose titles – “Happy Loving Couples,” “Fools In Love” – betray both the psyche of a wounded lover and an incurable romantic. Jackson’s band never rocked harder than they did on this album, and the whole thing has the sound of a greatest hits package, all wrapped up and delivered with a sardonic bow, the portrait of the artist as insecure asshole and raging libido.
Graham Parker – Squeezing Out Sparks
Yet another Angry Young Man, Graham Parker was the antithesis of the stereotypic rocker – he was short, balding even in his early twenties, and a buttoned-down conservative. But no one ever said that conservatives and spleen can’t mix, and Parker does some major venting on this album. He gets in his shots at the local girls (“Local Girls,” naturally enough) and his record label (“Mercury Poisoning”), but he saves his best and most incisive observations for “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” an anti-abortion commentary that still startles today:
Did they tear it out with talons of steel
And give you a shot so that you wouldn’t feel
And wash it away as if it wasn’t real?
It’s just a mistake I won’t have to face
Don’t give it a name, don’t give it a place
Don’t give it a chance, it’s lucky in a way
For some reason, no CCM band has covered that.
Parker’s band The Rumour burns throughout, squeezing out not sparks, but white hot, rampaging rock ‘n roll. Parker sounds like his head is ready to explode. Frothing at the mouth never sounded so good.
Squeeze – Argybargy
This isn’t the best-known Squeeze album (that honor probably goes to 1981’s East Side Story), but it’s stood the test of time for me. Every track is an idiosyncratic pop gem. Some Squeeze albums sound dated, but not this one. The gifted songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook spin out clever lyrics and sprightly, ever-shifting melodies on every song, and if you’re looking for evidence, consider “Pulling Mussels from the Shell” and “Another Nail in My Heart,” the opening tracks to this album. Driven by Jools Holland’s Farfisa organ (which somehow manages to sound hip instead of cheesy), these songs remain both quirky and endlessly accessible. The former, a quintessentially English story of tourists and their culinary preferences while on holiday, has to be the best song about bivalve mollusks ever recorded (with Soul Asylum’s Clam Dip and Other Delights a close second). The whole album offers convincing proof that pop music can be surprising, strange, and insanely catchy.
The Undertones – The Undertones
I never really bought the idea of The Undertones as a punk band. The Sex Pistols were a punk band, The Clash were a punk band, but The Undertones were a power pop band who liked to play their guitars really loudly. Feargal Sharkey, with his sheeplike, bleating vibrato, was about as punk as Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees. That’s okay. John Peel, legendary BBC DJ, liked “Teenage Kicks” so much that he played it twice in a row over the air. And I think I probably played it five or six times in a row myself the first time I heard it. It’s that good. So is the rest of this debut album, in spite of Feargal’s ovine imitations. That’s because these Derry, Northern Ireland boys wrote perfect two-minute pop songs about adolescent hormones and the ageless fear of rejection – not only “Teenage Kicks,” but “Jimmy Jimmy” and “Male Model” and “Get Over You,” songs that still barrel out of the speakers and bowl you over, twenty-seven years down the line. The original album, which has since been padded out with demos and B-sides for the CD release, came in at a rousing 28 minutes. It’s not a second too long or a second too short, and by the end of it, you feel like you’ve been on one exhausting, exhilarating ride.